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Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2001

When does a faith become a cult?


By PHILIP J. CUNNINGHAM
FALUN GONG'S CHALLENGE TO CHINA: Spiritual Practice or "Evil Cult," by Danny Schechter. Akashic Books, 2000, 225 pp., $24 (cloth).

Last year about this time, I visited Tiananmen Square, mingling with tourists and day-trippers enjoying the warmth of the midday sun. As I reminisced about this historic spot, where students had erected their headquarters in 1989, a police van pulled over and I saw a more subdued form of protest and crackdown.

A middle-age woman in a purple sweater sitting a few meters away was questioned, brusquely, by two police officers. They grabbed her and led her into the van; she offered no resistance. The van took off, gliding past the marble pedestal that had been damaged by tanks and gunfire in 1989.

The incident troubled me. Who was this woman? What right did the police have to arrest her? How did they know if she was Falun Gong? Was I witnessing the heavy-handed suppression of religion, or was the Chinese government shrewdly nipping a dangerous cult in the bud?

"Falun Gong's Challenge to China," a reader assembled by New York media critic Danny Schechter, attempts to answer some of these questions. Schechter recognizes the futility of trying to explain Falun Gong single-handedly and instead presents a diverse range of viewpoints, allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

The "blind men" describing this elephant of a "meditation group" range from Chinese government commentators, human-rights advocates, Western scholars, PR experts and the self-proclaimed "Master," Li Hongzhi himself.

Oddly enough, Li offers the least informative account of all. He is cryptic at best, oblique and obscure at worst. While his followers flock to Tiananmen Square to face certain arrest, what, if anything can be made of this pronouncement from the master. "Shall we swat flies or mosquitoes when they come inside? If you cannot drive them out, then killing them is no big deal." On Beijing's reaction to his movement, Li offers this chilling comment: "There could be another Tiananmen incident, a second mass massacre." Elsewhere he sounds outright naive, if not disingenuous, when he says that the Falun Gong movement, composed of an alleged 100 million followers, "doesn't have an organizational structure at all."

Talking of the demons that haunt mankind and legitimize his quest, Li sounds simply nutty: "The aliens come from other planets. Some are from dimensions that human beings have not yet discovered." He also says he can fly and control people from a distance and that scientists would agree with him if scientists weren't too politicized to see the real truth.

Having lived in Japan during the time of Aum Shinrikyo, just hearing talk of levitation and special powers by a guru with messianic aspirations makes me cringe. Seeing ordinary people put themselves at risk and get hurt in the name of some fat cat guru in luxurious exile is painful. It predisposes me so much against the grandiose pretensions of Li Hongzhi that I am ready to give the Chinese government the benefit of the doubt on this one: Falun Gong looks like a cult, smells like a cult and by any reasonable definition is a cult.

The Chinese argue that Falun Gong must be smashed to protect human rights and free speech. Sounds like communist doublespeak you say? But incredibly enough, there is a point beneath the harsh rhetoric: Cults lack transparency and hide the truth. During Aum's short, inglorious history, it targeted publications and television stations that dared to challenge its right to be "left alone" to pursue its bloody agenda. Cults are notoriously thin-skinned when it comes to media criticism, and Falun Gong is no exception. The first few big rallies in Tianjin and Beijing were directed at unfriendly media coverage, long before the group was deemed an evil cult and banned.

Early in the book, Schechter writes, "In 1996, for reasons that haven't been fully explained, Li, who speaks only Chinese, came to the U.S. with permanent visa status for him and his family." One wishes that Schechter had followed up on this and other interesting hunches, such as his initial sense that Falun Gong was a CIA plot to destabilize China. The deeply illiberal, antihomosexual rhetoric of the movement is duly noted but not grappled with.

Schechter offers an insightful account of how Beijing's flowery anti-FLG rhetoric was not initiated by the Chinese government, which tolerated the sect for a very long time, but by ex-members who had had a falling out with the master. He Zuoxiu's "How Falun Gong harassed me and my family" is one of the earliest texts to criticize Li and his followers. This text was later co-opted by the Beijing propaganda apparatus in word and tone. Schechter hints that the Communist Party was divided on how to proceed, with Premier Zhu Rongji reportedly sympathetic to the sect and President Jiang Zemin incensed by it. What is not known is whether Jiang is truly scared of Falun Gong or is just irritated by it, and is using it as a convenient "enemy" to instill discipline to get others in line.

So, what is the real story? Schechter is better at asking questions than answering them and 200-plus pages later we still don't know, though not for the author's lack of trying.

Schechter's own observations on the cult have an unapologetic liberal bias: He sees religion where others might see a cult. And in a contrarian, sporting sort of way, he has taken a liking to the unlikely revolutionaries now challenging China. He comes close to bending over backward for them. But he is a sober observer and doesn't dally on the primrose path for long.

The author's critical faculties are fully operational when it comes to his appraisal of the Beijing establishment and the Western media. On the alleged suicidal tendencies of cult members, he shrewdly notes, "To the Chinese state, it appears that anyone who challenges its authority is acting in a de facto suicidal manner." Well put. The author also rightly derides the provincial prejudices of The New York Times, which snootily observed, "Has it come to this, that the Chinese Communist Party is terrified of retirees in tennis shoes who follow a spiritual master in Queens?"

The author, who calls himself a "media dissector," is too smart to make a claim to the last word on such an opaque topic. He gives adequate space to conflicting, even contrary viewpoints. The second half of the book consists of annotated readings including practitioner accounts, letters from China, state media accounts, official and unofficial biographical data, U.S. State Department press releases, the text of China's anticult legislation, an introduction to the teachings of Li Hongzhi and an Internet resource guide. Schechter is among a handful of media commentators who have actually met Li Hongzhi, though his account of the meeting and transcript tend to reinforce the image of Li as both banal in his ordinariness and yet somehow inscrutable.

I have a few factual quibbles with Schechter's history of protest in China, especially when he says students in 1989 were originally campaigning to reform the government and renew the Party, "not overthrow it, as was erroneously thought by many abroad." Chai Ling, the commander in chief of the students, told me in a recorded interview at the height of the movement that the students were "trying to overthrow the government." And it's admittedly a minor point when talking about an icon, but the man in front of the tank didn't stop the tanks from going in, the tanks were retreating at the time he made world photo history.

Overall the volume is cleanly edited, no mean feat for a text littered with difficult-to-spell Chinese terms. The author comes from a radio and TV background, which helps explain his ear for good quotes, even from Marx: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world."

When queried on the whereabouts of Master Li, Falun Gong follower and official translator Erping Zhang is quoted as saying, "I have no idea. I don't even have the desire to know." And Schechter includes the delightful anti-Falun Gong ditty recorded by Peter Carlson of The Washington Post during a visit to the Chinese Embassy in Washington: "I think my Falun Gong is fine,/ It can help collect money to dine,/ And drink a lot good wine . . ./ I have lots of followers here and there,/ And now I'm a billionaire,/ What about anything else [do] I need to care?"

Falun Gong is a work in progress. If it turns out to be a ruthless political movement in religious garb, exploiting human gullibility to topple the Beijing government, then a clear-cut explanation for the fervor of believers and the ferocity of the crackdown may be forthcoming. It could, however, be one of those weird things, a jumble of random, irrational ideas being reacted to irrationally, and whatever precious truth there is will not be found in any book, but deep in the hearts and minds of actors who may be acting for reasons they themselves don't truly understand.

Philip Cunningham teaches media studies in the Faculty of Communication Arts at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok.


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